Issue of death penalty in Belarus still a priority for EU countries
The resumption of a dialogue between the EU and Belarus will become a platform for further discussion of the issue of the death penalty, said David Spiers, Deputy Chief of the UK Mission to Belarus, in an interview to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”. He is the coordinator of a working group on the death penalty in Belarus, which was created in 2014 to bring together representatives of the European Union embassies in Minsk.
In your speech at an event held within this year’s Week against the Death Penalty you said the working group is now composed of 14 members. Could you elaborate on who has joined the group over the year? What are the key objectives of the group’s work?
The group initially started with four members – representatives from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France and the UK. We were four in the action team that had quite a passionate interest in the death penalty. Having established this core group, we sought to diversify it by including into the conversation representatives from a broader audience: such as the church, UNDP, Council of Europe, and any of the EU member-states that wanted to join us.
Our key objectives are to coordinate the activities among the group members, combine efforts and deal with the death penalty issue as a wider group, not simply as an EU issue. We also want to inform ourselves better about the situation here, in Belarus, to understand what is required to address the issue and how the civil society and legal points of view are taken into account.
In this context, what Belarusian organizations do you cooperate with?
We cooperate with a wide range of groups, from Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. And we also cooperate with the MFA, the Belarusian authorities, and any other organization that has an interest in the death penalty. We are open to speaking to people who can start a debate.
What are the steps taken by the group in solving the problem of the death penalty?
I think I have to make it clear that this is not the issue for the group to solve. There are mechanisms within Belarus for determining the use of or imposing a moratorium on the death penalty. We understand, for example, that that in 2004 the Constitutional Court ruled it was up to the parliament or president to decide on this issue. So, that’s where the responsibility for determining the issue lies. The group essentially is here to provide knowledge, expertise and support to anyone who’s involved in this issue. We want to work with all parties.
From the point of view of the group, what other important steps can be made by the civil society of Belarus for the abolition of the death penalty?
I think that the civil society of Belarus has made a number of amazingly important steps in looking at the rationale for the death penalty. They researched the history of its use, investigated the society’s understanding of the death penalty. I think it’s extremely important, even vital, that this doesn’t become an emotive issue. That’s one of the key parts of preventing the civil society from complaining this debate. Our group believes that a moratorium should be put in place based on humanitarian principles. And in many cases this involves the authorities taking the decision on a moratorium or the abolition on these humanitarian grounds even though the society itself may not necessarily agree.
If can also add some facts from the history of my own country. We carried out our last execution 50 years ago. We abolished the death penalty for murder crimes in 1967. Since then, we have enjoyed very low rates of murder, gun use and violent crimes. This was a time when the population was not in favor of abolishing the death penalty. And this confirms our view that the death penalty has no a real deterrent or preventative effect.
Is working for the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus your first experience of this kind?
I’ve worked on human rights issues in other countries too. This is the first time dealing with the death penalty. Abolition or moratorium has been a long-standing objective of my government and the EU. We’ve been active on this in many countries and have a lot of experience in understanding arguments both for and against the death penalty.
Lobbying governments to abolish or impose a moratorium on the death penalty has been a long-standing objective of my government and the EU. We’ve been active on this issue in many countries and we have a lot of experience in understanding the arguments both for and against the death penalty. But we firmly believe that the death penalty is out of place in the XXI century. It’s demeaning the states, it’s irreversible and it’s ineffective as a deterrent.
Now we witness a trend towards the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus. In your opinion, can this contribute to declaring a moratorium on the death penalty?
I think that this isn’t simply an EU-Belarus issue, and the membership in our group indicates that it goes wider than this, in political, geographical and social senses. And when we think that there are almost a hundred countries around the world that have declared at least a moratorium or abolished the death penalty, it’s clear that this not an EU issue. That’s said, I would hope that the continuing dialogue between Belarus and the EU would provide a possible platform for discussing the issue further. Indeed, the death penalty issue was raised during the most recent round of the resumed Human Rights Dialogue in July 2015. We would like to think that a public debate on the issue would take place soon.
From a legal point of view, it’s in the hands of the parliament and president whether moratorium and abolition happens. In addition to this, as Belarus has more and closer engagement with the international community, then the prospects for further debates and consultations on this issue can increase. For example, the Bulgarian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe has stated its objective to work towards the association of Belarus with the Council of Europe if the country confirmed its readiness to comply with the main principles and values of the organisation, in particular regarding the abolition of the death penalty.
What prospects do you see in solving the problem of the death penalty in Belarus?
It would be good to have more dialogue and openness on the death penalty in Belarus. This can only be healthy as in any open society. As a group, we would encourage the authorities to make a bold and humane decision to impose a moratorium that would allow the country to move forward and pave the way for association with the Council of Europe.